Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Quiller

Go To

They know they've got to look for the man who stands facing the wrong way in a bus queue to show he doesn't really want a bus, the man who always wants the window open when everyone else wants it shut, the awkward fellow who's going to kill himself one day trying to prove he's bullet-proof. And if they want him for a dirty, rotten, stinking job that he'd normally throw back in their faces, all they've got to do is tell him that everyone else has refused it.

Quiller is the first-person protagonist of a series of espionage novels by English-born author Elleston Trevor, writing under the pen name of Adam Hall. He is a shadow executive (secret agent) for the Bureau, a 'deniable' British intelligence agency reporting directly to the Prime Minister.

One of the books, The Berlin Memorandum, was adapted by director Michael Anderson and screenwriter Harold Pinter into the 1966 film The Quiller Memorandum. George Segal starred as Quiller, and the cast also included Alec Guinness, Max von Sydow, Senta Berger and George Sanders. There was also a short-lived BBC-TV series in 1975.

The books include the following tropes:

  • All a Part of the Job: Quiller makes clear that he (and by extension the other shadow executives) do their job because they need the excitement. He presents it as a not very sane defect. He's all for helping humanity and his country and doing the right thing, but if Quiller goes too long between assignments he starts to hang around the office waiting (begging) for something and finds himself agreeing to take assignments that he would have otherwise turned down.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Quiller is on the receiving end on several occasions.
  • Comic-Book Time: Quiller repeatedly says he's "getting old" in the first novel, written in 1965. His last mission is in "Quiller Balalaika", written in 1996 — as Quiller was a secret agent during the Second World War this would put him in his seventies.
  • Cunning Linguist: Quiller language skills range from Polish ("It's like stuffing your tongue in a jar of used razor blades.") to Cantonese.
  • Cyanide Pill: Quiller refuses to carry one because he’s Suffix 9 (Reliable Under Torture). He changes his mind in the later novels after he's been tortured a few times.
  • Demanding Their Head: In Quiller's Run, Quiller is played a wiretap recording of the villainess demanding his head. The Handler tries to make light of it. "Once you're dead, you won't care where the thing is." It's not an idle threat, as a previous agent had his head delivered to his embassy. After Quiller bests a hitman who nearly takes his head off with a garrote, he's told there was a head-sized box with a plastic bag found inside the hitman's car.
  • Deus ex Nukina: In The Tango Briefing Quiller has to use a backpack nuke to destroy a cargo of nerve gas that's crashed in the desert. Unfortunately the remote detonator gets smashed when he parachutes in.
  • Direct Line to the Author: A short forward in one of the novels says that they are 'fictionalised' stories of an actual agent, who will be called "Quiller" to protect his identity.
  • Doesn't Like Guns: Quiller always refuses a handgun — they give him away as a spy, they cause overconfidence, and they're noisy. He has used sniper rifles in a couple of books, but only when there's been no other way to kill a target. All other times Quiller relies on his martial arts skills.
  • Drink-Based Characterization: Quiller prefers Jack Daniels with ice — strong, and completely lacking in sophistication. A drink that just screams "Stale Beer".
  • Driven to Suicide: Shown as a rather disturbing Noodle Incident involving a shadow executive who cracks up under the strain.
  • Enemy Mine: "Quiller KGB"
  • Faint in Shock: Invoked In The Quiller Memorandum AKA The Berlin Memorandum when Quiller is faced with torture. He attempts to delay it by putting himself into syncope, through breathing heavily then holding his breath to drop his blood pressure. He is under massive stress, and he uses this to make his enemies believe he is weak.
  • Fun with Foreign Languages: Played straight in The Peking Target. Quiller has been captured by the Soviets, who force him to make a radio transmission giving a false report to his base. Unknown to the Soviet Big Bad, his translator is on Quiller's side. So the Big Bad tells what he wants Quiller to say in Russian, the translator tells Quiller what the actual Soviet plan is in English, and Quiller must then transmit that information to his base in a manner that still sounds plausible (if the false information contains the words Seoul or Peking, for instance, the Big Bad would be suspicious if he didn't hear those words). Unsurprisingly this chapter is entitled “Minefield”.
  • Get into Jail Free: In his final novel, Quiller discovers a witness who has evidence that can bring down a high-ranking boss of The Mafiya has been thrown into The Gulag. He gets himself sent there too (though only by faking the conviction papers) even through no-one has ever escaped before.
  • The Ghost: Moira, an unseen actress lover of Quiller. Various Girl of the Week types are shown, but she is the only one Quiller leaves a bequest to in his will (“roses for Moira”).
  • The Handler: Each shadow executive has a director-in-the-field who organises safehouses, communication, transport, identity papers, liaison with government officials — in short, anything the agent needs for the mission. They have a right to refuse to work with a particular director, given that trust between the two is so important. Quiller's preferred director is Ferris, even though he's slightly creepy (he's rumored to strangle mice). A brief passage in one book sizes up two other directors, Loman ("brilliant but desperate for personal kudos, talk you into a suicide bid if it'll get him a medal, it wasn't his fault I'd come out of Tunis alive") and Thornton ("totally dependable, pull you out of the gates of hell if he can get there in time, but short on Rusk-think patterns and mission sense....").
  • Hero Insurance: Averted; Quiller is not allowed to steal or damage private property during the course of a mission, and he's always griping about how his expenses are scrutinised minutely.
  • Incredibly Obvious Bug: Quiller "listening for clicks" whenever he picks up the phone, even though the technology involved in phone tapping is a bit more sophisticated than that, even back in The '60s.
  • Incredibly Obvious Tail: Played straight in "The Quiller Memorandum", as those following Quiller are trying to pressure him into making a mistake — and "Quiller's Run", where he's being boxed in until a hitman catches up with him. Averted in most cases; though Quiller is good at picking up the subtle clues that show he's being followed, he does make the occasional mistake. For instance in The Mandarin Cypher, Quiller is sent to make contact with a low-ranking agent keeping tabs on the widow of a British scientist, sees what to him is an Incredibly Obvious Tail and asks the agent how long she's been under surveillance by the Opposition. The agent can only respond with Oh, Crap! as he had no idea they were there. Later Quiller is tracked to his hotel by the Opposition without realising it, showing he's not above such mistakes himself.
  • I Work Alone: Quiller refuses to work with "shields" (bodyguards) or other shadow executives because he doesn't want to let his guard down by depending on someone else.
  • Just Between You and Me: Subverted in “The Berlin Memorandum” as the Big Bad’s plan is bogus — he’s hoping Quiller will contact his headquarters in an attempt to stop it, giving away its location.
  • Mad Lib Thriller Title: "The Warsaw Briefing", "The Scorpion Signal" etc. This changed with "Northlight", after which every novel was titled "Quiller (name)".
  • Manipulative Bastard: This is expected of the London directors, who often trick Quiller into taking a job he'd normally refuse or sending him a mission while concealing the real objective. Quiller accepts this is Nothing Personal, except for the time he's set up to be killed. Shadow executives are generally regarded as expendable, but this means that Quiller can no longer trust London, so he resigns in a huff and ends up taking a private contract for the Thai government. Which turns out to be another Bureau job they've manipulated him into.
  • Medication Tampering: In The Striker Portfolio, West German fighter planes are crashing at a suspicious rate. When Quiller finds the saboteur, he turns out to be the psychiatrist who's been giving the pilots sedatives to cope with stress. One of the pills in each tube is an increased dosage that knocks out the pilot so they crash. Quiller is incredulous that it's something so simple.
  • Mysterious Past: The only thing we know about Quiller's past is that he's Conveniently an Orphan and his schooldays were not pleasant.
  • Nazi Hunter: In Berlin Memorandum.
  • Noodle Incident: Offhand references are made to missions Quiller has taken part in, but which are not covered in the novels.
  • No Such Agency: The Bureau, an organization directly responsible to the Prime Minister of Britain, with "powers that would be called into question in the House of Commons should its existence be revealed".
  • Not My Driver: Happens in "Quiller's Run". Even though he escapes, Quiller is furious that he walked into so obvious a trap.
  • One Riot, One Ranger: Lampshaded in Quiller's Run, when he asks why a paramilitary team isn't sent to take down a powerful Arms Dealer.
  • Overt Operative: Averted. "Quiller" is just a Code Name, and he always uses a cover name on a mission, which is used even in messages to Mission Control.
  • Regular Caller: Quiller usually starts a novel being coaxed or conned into taking a mission by various directors of the Bureau. This is perfectly acceptable to him, as all shadow executives are Blood Knights and their superiors are expected to be Manipulative Bastards.
  • Resignations Not Accepted: Averted. In "Quiller's Run", Quiller resigns after his own people try to blow him up during the course of a mission (all Bureau operatives are regarded as expendable). Rather than trying to force him to return, the Bureau simply give him a mission under the disguise of a private contract.
  • Russian Roulette: In Quiller Balalaika a Russian Mafiya boss forces Quiller to play this game (after he's already witnessed one of his mooks get killed this way) with one bullet and six spins of the chamber. The boss is stunned when Quiller actually survives. So he orders his men to take Quiller out to the forest and shoot him properly.
  • Spy Fiction: Of the Stale Beer kind.
  • Spy Speak: Speechcode.
  • The Spymaster: Croder, Chief of Signals.
  • Underside Ride: Quiller is advised not to do this when escaping from The Gulag, as the last person who tried froze to death. In an earlier book, he tries to follow someone by ducking into the wheel well of their passenger aircraft, passes out from lack of oxygen and wakes up just in time to stop himself falling to his death as the undercarriage is lowered.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Played straight — Bureau agents are never told what the mission is about, the idea being that the agent should not get distracted by any larger political implications.

The Quiller Memorandum (1966) includes the following tropes:

  • Character Tics: Oktober cracks his knuckles.
  • Disconnected by Death: The opening scene has a Bureau agent shot by a sniper rifle as he tries using a phone booth. Quiller is later smart enough to walk past the booth rather than try dialing for help (on both occasions the villains are letting the agent run in an attempt to find their headquarters, but naturally had to kill the agent when he simply tried phoning in his vital information instead).
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Oktober; since he's played by Max von Sydow, this is a given.
  • External Combustion: A motion sensitive bomb is attached to Quiller's car.
  • Handbag of Hurt: Quiller is bumped by a man with a suitcase, it later becomes apparent that the suitcase was a disguised syringe used to tranq him.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Quiller wants Inge.
  • Hot Teacher: Inge is rather easy on the eye.
  • Instant Sedation: Averted. It takes enough time to take affect that Quiller is able to drive for sometime before becoming groggy, then paralytic and finally unconcious.
  • Limited Wardrobe: Even after being dumped in a river Quiller continues to wear the same grey suit, only changing his clothes at the very end.
  • Obsessed with Food: Every scene featuring Pol either has him eating food or talking about it.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: The two bosses in London have utter indifference to the operation in Berlin, talking about it with as much enthusiasm as they talk about lunch.
  • Trick-and-Follow Ploy: The neo-Nazis explain their master plan to Quiller (actually a phony plan), then release him in the hope that he'll rush back to his base to warn his superiors. When Quiller finds himself unable to break out of their surveillance, he sets off a bomb they left in his car (in case he tried to drive out, which would increase the risk of losing him), faking his death.
  • Truth Serums: Quiller is injected with a drug designed to make him high and therefore talkative; they get some facts out of the subsequent Word Salad, but not enough. Quiller does reveal too much about his obsession for a girl he's met, however, so they decide to use that angle to force his co-operation.
  • The Unreveal: Inge; was she lucky that Phoenix let her go or was she lucky to escape capture by the Bureau?

Alternative Title(s): The Quiller Memorandum